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Looking back on 9-11

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I remember this day in vignettes — flashes of experience. I remember this as a day during which I had to use all that I knew about children and education to make decisions for the 28 young people that had been entrusted to me. It was a day that made clear the power of good teaching, and the understanding that schools are communities that are built on relationships.

It was the second day of school, at 8:40 am, on a crisp fall morning with a bright blue sky, and the fifth- grade classes wanted to stay out in the yard of our Downtown Brooklyn school and socialize just a little bit more. We fifth grade teachers glanced at each other and quickly made the decision that these 15 minutes would go a long way in developing community and rapport with our new classes, so we stayed out. The children sat chatting in groups. After the 15 minutes, we lined up and started filing into the school, when we heard a child call out, “I just saw a plane hit a building!”

“I don’t think that’s possible,” a teacher confidently responded.

“Wanda, can I speak to you in the hallway?” a colleague called to me. The students and I were engrossed in our morning read aloud. “The Lord of the Rings” trilogy was everywhere, and the children had decided I should read “The Hobbit” aloud to them. The first 20 minutes of each day was dedicated to this reading. Children were stretched out on the carpet, hanging on each word. No one was bored, and no one was fidgeting. Some were sketching or taking notes in their reader’s notebook.

“Can this wait, please?” she asked.

“I’m not allowed to interrupt our special read aloud,” I said. That was the rule, after all — no bathroom, no side conversations, no distractions.

“I think this is really important,” she insisted.

“Well, all right,” I responded. “Everyone, turn and talk — what do you think is going to happen next?”

Out in the hallway, I could see how agitated, actually hysterical, my colleague was as she stammered, “We just heard a report that a number of small planes are hitting buildings in Manhattan, and car bombs are exploding throughout the city!”

My thoughts went immediately to my son, a high school student in Manhattan.

“What the hell is happening?” I thought. “Is he OK?!” But I couldn’t linger there too long. There were 28 children belonging to other parents — as well as my own daughter — in my classroom. (Yes, I was my daughter’s fifth grade teacher.) I had to think of them. And I did think. I weighed each decision carefully.

I have always believed that children deal better with information than with the lack of it. They had heard the worry in my colleague’s voice and noticed her agitation. I knew I had to address their concerns. I reentered our classroom and explained to the children that there was something unusual going on in Manhattan, and that when we got more information, I would be sure to share it with them. The read aloud continued. But as soon as it ended, the questions began.

The children really wanted to know what was happening, so we plugged in the class radio. We turned it on just as the commentators were emotionally reporting on the people jumping out of the World Trade Center towers. I quickly turned off the radio.

The children needed to talk about what they were thinking and feeling, so we did a go ’round — each child could ask one question and share one thing they were thinking. Some children were worried that Manhattan had been totally flattened, some worried that their family members who worked in Manhattan wouldn’t be able to get out. What they imagined was far worse than even the unimaginable reality.

I decided that they really needed to see for themselves the view of Manhattan from my colleague’s classroom, which was at the end of the corridor, on the other side of the hall. We sat in the hallway chatting as, a few at a time, they walked to the window. Yes, they did see the Twin Towers ablaze and falling, but they also saw that there was no other major damage. They returned to our classroom still nervous, but also greatly relieved.

There were two children who were particularly worried, and their classmates immediately rallied around them to listen and give comfort. This group of students had been together since kindergarten and had forged deep and supportive relationships. They argued at times, but they clearly cared for one another. There was some crying, and a lot of talking. There was some good listening, and a lot of reassuring. Some hugging, and a lot of hand-holding.

I shared as much information as I could. I listened as well as I could. And we tried to continue our learning: independent reading, writing workshop, a math lesson, and an introduction lesson to our study of the Arctic. But it was hard to focus, and the children really just wanted to be with each other and talk.

And then the announcements began. Parents were coming to pick up their children, and every few minutes, a child’s name was heard over the public address system. That child quickly packed up, hugged us goodbye, and went to the office to go home.

The interruptions were constant, and I do believe the announcements were hard on those children who had not yet been picked up. I know that it was hard on me — a mother who still did not know the whereabouts of one of her children.

At last, a good friend of mine arrived with his son, as well as his classmate — my son. They had taken the F train from Manhattan, which despite the news reports to the contrary, was still running. I now had my daughter AND my son with me. I realized I was experiencing the only relief I had felt all day. And, as I hugged my son, I laughed — and cried. I cried in front of the remaining children, who all gathered around and hugged us. I cried, because that’s what human beings do.

I think on some level those youngsters all knew that I had held it together for them all day, and they did not begrudge me this one display of emotion.

I waited until the very last child left our classroom. And only then did I go home with my children. None of us knew the whole story yet. None of us knew what the future would bring. We didn’t know then how this experience would change us, our country, and our lives.

Two days later, we were all back in our classroom, crying, talking, and listening, trying to process what had happened and make sense of it all — together.

Wanda Troy works as a literacy-content coach at PS 32 in Carroll Gardens. She was the director of the New Program at PS 261 in Boerum Hill and a classroom teacher there.

Updated 4:30 pm, July 9, 2018
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